All about the boundaries…
When I say ‘boundaries’ what gets conjured up in your head? Do they come with a particular feeling for you? Perhaps you could start immediately reeling off your current ones and go into all the detail about how they support you. Or maybe you’re wondering what on earth I’m going on about.
Boundaries have a special place in my heart – not because I’m perfect at shaping them or sticking to them, but because I know the power they can hold. I held a belief (for longer than I care to admit) that they were there to be restrictive and had quite the regimented vibe about them.
How wrong I was!
It’s a conversation that comes up a lot in my line of work so my learning is ever evolving, but I wanted to share some of my tips and insights to give you some food for thought on this much needed topic.
1. Define them
If someone asked you what your boundaries are, would you be able to tell them? It might sound obvious to have them described in delicious detail, but it isn’t always the first port of call.
Let’s go from the beginning and write down / voice note / spray paint / type the beginnings of your boundaries as they currently stand. You could use prompts like relationships, communication, work set up, time for yourself, personal space, privacy…the list is endless because we all have different things that require boundaries.
Remember they’re not all about saying no – sometimes it can be a yes (the stuff you’re consciously wanting to invite in) or a ‘not right now’ kind of situation.
2. Align them to your values
They will be much easier to stick to if they’re based on your internal moral compass. I’ll bring this one to life with Emily* who has personal values that include freedom, creativity and curiosity.
Emily’s boundaries aligning to those values might include things like creating thinking space in the outdoors, protecting time when they’re at their most creative and finding a routine that allows them opportunities to learn something new.
3. Link them to your goals and definition of success
Similarly to the values point, your boundaries need to be anchored to the stuff that matters to you. We don’t want to pluck them from nowhere or copy somebody else’s like for like – they are as unique as you are.
It begins by shaping them around your goals and what success looks like to you. Whatever features on your list / vision board / post it note, ask yourself ‘what boundaries do I need in place to get me there?’ over and over until you start to form a plan.
4. Know your responses
It’s all well and good having them defined, but what if you struggle knowing WHAT to actually say to people when you’re using a boundary? It can be a big confidence boost to know what you want to say. For example it might be you want to work up a standard ‘thanks for thinking of me, but that’s not something I can help with right now’ or ‘yes I’d absolutely love to, this is when I’m available’ or ‘no’ (yes, it is indeed a full sentence).
5. Share them
Need some accountability? Time to vocalise them to your boss so those after hours meetings stop creeping in? Maybe it’s the intense family member who just won’t stop with the evening phone calls when all you want to do is switch off.
Communicating your boundaries can be incredibly powerful on a couple of levels. It let’s other people know what you’ll accept for starters – no more mind reading, no more getting frustrated with yourself when you miss the opportunity to assert them.
It can also help to keep you accountable – you’re not passing the responsibility on to someone else, because it is only you that can truly keep your boundaries in place. You can however create a virtual ‘team’ of supporters who can have your back and remind you when you might be cracking.
6. Use them
OK, now she’s being ridiculous I hear you say. Well bear with me, because this common sense step isn’t always common practice. I’ve worked with an abundance of people who do the work to identify their boundaries, may even share them a little and then…nothing. There’s not a sniff of action.
The next time a meeting comes in that will make you late for your next commitment or the phone call you haven’t got the headspace for right now…decline it and send them to voicemail respectively.
7. What’s causing them to slip?
We’re not looking for perfection, but if you’re struggling to keep your boundaries in place we need to get to grips with why. Reflect on the times where you’re not honouring them.
What’s happening? Who is involved? Is it a particular situation that’s repeating? It could also be things like other people’s actions, people pleasing tendencies and overplayed strengths to name a few.
Perhaps you’ve got the ‘wrong’ ones in place which makes it difficult to stick to – take Sam* for example. Sam has just returned to work following adoption leave and is feeling time pinched, unable to get to the bottom of their to do list and not feeling particularly present for their family. They put in a boundary to protect their weekends – no seeing friends and family for the foreseeable until they feel more in control.
Spoiler, Sam did not need this boundary. Sam actually needed time with friends and family, they love connection and are at their best when they get to be sociable. It meant there was an unintended consequence of the ‘no weekend activities’ boundary and Sam actually felt worse. After figuring this out, Sam and their family re-adjusted a bit and said every other weekend was going to be protected instead.
Once you understand the source of the slip, you can adjust accordingly.
8. What’s working well?
It’s mega important to tune in to what’s going well.
It might be celebrating boundaries working, the positive consequences of having them in place, the stuff helping you keep them in place…anything! You can apply the learning to other areas but also it feels crush-a-grape brilliant to know you’re looking out for yourself.
9. Watch your language
Boundaries can get a bad press because they’re often associated with being restrictive, all about saying no and being overall a limitation situation. Whilst some of the intention is about being protective and not going overboard, they’re not all about the negativity bias they’ve been coupled with.
They allow for a healthy relationship with ourselves, limit our exposure to things and people that could be causing us trauma and open up our opportunities to spend more time doing what’s important to us and what we love.
10. Refresh them
Boundaries are not for life – well, the same boundaries anyway. Holding on to the same boundaries that we had in 2019 is likely to be fruitless. They need to be as dynamic as you are and serve you well at the time. Life situations change, the world shifts and new scenarios are playing out.
Some questions that might help with this one are:
- What’s going to help me right now?
- What part of my boundaries needs an update?
- What can I learn from my current ones?
Boundaries are different for each of us, and honestly it’s one of my favourite topics. If you’ve got a boundary story to share I’d love to hear it! You can get in touch by emailing my on email@example.com.